Respecting the laws of this frightful deity has become the central concern of an unfortunate number of Muslim communities.
Even at the expense of Islamic values and laws.
Any guesses? I'll give you a clue:
'What are people going to say?'
If you've heard this question as many times as I have, you'll know what I'm talking about.
with its endless expectations and customs.
In a sense, the rule of society within traditional eastern communities functions in a similar way to that of religions. For instance, every 'society' has its own codes and regulations and individuals are expected to follow these laws or risk being judged or isolated. Society has its own leaders and figures. Society even has its own preachers. Oftentimes, individuals will also feel entitled to judge you based on constructed, unwritten or imaginary social codes. This is a frustrating reality. But what I find very hard to swallow is the way Muslim communities undermine the very values they are built on in order to appease customs and social expectations. Here are some common symptoms of this issue.
1- The reputation paranoia
Protecting one's reputation or the reputation of the family has developed into an unhealthy obsession. In its lesser form, the reputation paranoia has pushed families into restricting their children's movements, controlling their studies or spouse choices. In its extreme forms, this paranoia has resulted in the murder of innocent women in the name of honour.
Is this Islamic? Nope. Is this ethical? Nope. Is this legal? Nope.
But if the new God, Society, ordains it, people will do it.
The funny thing is, 'protecting' your reputation is seen by many as the obviously wise thing to do. In fact, there are several sayings I've heard that are used to reinforce this idea. But in reality, this goes against the spirit of Islam which began as a revolutionary force that changed pre-Islamic culture in Arabia. When newborn girls were buried alive, Islam did not order people to uphold that destructive, unethical custom. Islam didn't ask people to follow in the footsteps of their forefathers or stick to the status quo. Islam was a force of social change. But our obsession with following societal laws has unfortunately stripped it of its true purpose:
Making the world a better place.
2- Religious institutions' fear of the masses
Things I always hear from religious leaders:
'If you undermine people's outdated understanding of religion too soon, this will lead to a breakdown in society.'
'The society is not ready to know these things.'
'It will reflect badly on the institution.'
How are our communities ever going to advance and grow if religious leaders continually patronize the masses, reinforce superstitions and un-Islamic customs. Isn't their role to speak the truth? To teach the truth- well, as best as they understand it at least?
3- Forbidding permissible things
'It's wrong for a woman to cut her long hair.' (Not joking here)
'A good woman must wear her abaya over her head.'
Every few years you hear about new societal laws that have no basis in Islam. They are often petty and superficial and you will always be judged for not conforming. To this societal haram police I ask:
Who are you to forbid something that God sees as permissible? Who are you to tell me that I should dress and behave in a certain way when my religion allows me to do these things. And who are you to impose your own reading of religion on me just to please 'the society.'
4- Petty and vengeful behaviour
So I was wondering....maybe, just maybe if certain Muslims actually followed Islamic ethics and manners, we wouldn't have families at each other's throats for stupid social etiquette reasons.
'She didn't attend MY son's wedding, therefore this woman is a cow and I will not attend HER daughter's wedding.'
Wonderful...such mature, 'Islamic' behaviour.
5- Social Hierarchy
'We don't marry into these families.'
'Our family has a particular social standing.'
Islam teaches equality, but despite this, certain Muslim communities have developed a caste system of their own. They place families in a hierarchical system, will not marry 'beneath' them, and look down on families who are poorer, less educated and even at times darker-skinned. I've personally been in the company of educated, 'religious' individuals who have no issue using racial slurs. It was both shocking and disappointing.
6- Social obligations at all costs
I was once in a funeral of a man who was brutally murdered. His family asked that no one approach them during the funeral as they were physically and emotionally exhausted. They had a notice explaining this on the door of the mosque. While I was sitting down I was shocked to see a long queue of women forming to offer their condolences. A lady on the microphone made an announcement asking them not to approach the family. She explained again that they were so tired.
What did those women do?
Nothing. They continued on. There was around 7-10 women if I remember correctly. Maybe one or two sat back down.
Why? How can anyone be so heartless?
Well, my aunt explained that these women most likely came from outside our town and they were keen on showing the family that they had done their obligation by attending the funeral.
This is the ugly side of social obligation.
When you care about what God thinks, you better yourself from the inside. When care about what society thinks, you put on a display. It's no coincidence that the 5 pillars of Islam are not public displays of worship, except for hajj which is not obligatory for those unable to perform it. You can pray in your house...or not. No one will know. You can eat food in your room during Ramadan and never pay zakat. Who will know? No one. Even with regards to hajj, no one has to know anything about your personal/financial ability to perform it. Whereas, wearing the headscarf is a public display of worship. It is useless for a woman to wear a scarf in her bedroom.
Maybe this is why, despite being obligatory in mainstream Islam, the hijab isn't one of the five pillars of Islam. Otherwise, it would be much easier for people to put on a show of religiosity, to worship God for the wrong reason. The 5 pillars require sincerity and commitment. They are a test that only God can judge you on because society has no access to what you do or don't do in the privacy of your home. Perhaps this is why traditional cultures always latch onto the way women dress. People like to judge the surface, it's easy and unambiguous. But it is also superficial and un-Islamic.
This superficiality can be found in many parts of life. In religion, the way you dress, who you hang out with, where you live, what your job is, how much money you make etc. It's shocking how superficial certain Muslim communities have become. And a lot of time this superficiality is linked to that dreaded question:
'But what would people think?'
Maybe it's time to ask a different question:
'What would God think?'